Many companies have made the transition to a remote-friendly setup. Even though the COVID-19 vaccine is slowly making its way to the general public, many architects and designers will continue to work remotely. Now companies must contend with how to maintain—or in some cases, create—an inclusive culture that can stand the test of not only time, but also distance.

Internal Clarity for External Confidence
As the world gradually and turbulently makes its way back to in-person activities, the most discussed and debated topic is safety. Not everyone will be entirely comfortable back in the office or on job sites, but many will have to complete some tasks on-site in order to do their job well. Being empathetic in these situations is the key to steadying a positive culture.

In order to be empathetic, firm leadership must be upfront with what is to be expected of the people going on site as well as the conditions on that site. Everyone has a different perspective on what will and will not work for in-person interactions. Some questions to consider asking if you are an employee—or answering if you are in firm leadership—are:

  • Has any past COVID-19 exposure occurred?
  • How often are people getting tested?
  • What is the testing policy in general?
  • Are masks required?
  • Is social distancing required?

If there is pushback—which will most likely and understandably be the case—implore everyone on the team to remember the why while continuing to emphasize the how. Why are you going to the office or on site? To do your job, yes, but also to collaborate in work that requires conversations or technology that can’t be achieved remotely, or to review the construction of built spaces as compared to their original design.

Everyone has a different perspective on what will and will not work for in-person interactions.

To put their staffs at ease as person-to-person contact increases over the coming months, firm leaders must take control of the narrative around the COVID-19 safety protocols in place. Leaders must be their employees’ biggest advocates for safety inside and outside of the firm in order for employees to feel confident about working in the office or on site. Questions to ask—or answer—include:

  • What is the stance on masks and social distancing?
  • Will the vaccine be made available to everyone on staff or will they be directed to go through their personal medical providers?
  • Will the firm establish vaccination requirements? Keep in mind here that while legally firms can mandate vaccinations, employees can refuse to comply for several reasons, and the firm has little to no recourse in the case of staff refusal.
  • What are clients being told about the firm’s stance on these issues?

Life Is Still Very Different. Treat It That Way
Many people believe that employees bring their entire selves to work. If this is true, then individuals are bringing their ambition and motivation—but they are also bringing their personal struggles, from relationship to mental health concerns and everything in between. As a result, leaders and managers should be proactive listeners.

This is not the time to judge, second guess, or assume. People are still dealing with the effects of the pandemic in their day-to-day lives, particularly when it comes to be being primary caretakers of elderly parents or young children. Finding private time during the day to devote to their work is problematic at best, and nearly impossible at worst. Workers are facing constant distractions and are being pulled in every direction multiple times daily. Being slow to judge and quick to understand can help remove some of the insurmountable pressure people are experiencing.

On the other hand, team members need to be transparent with their struggles. No one—especially superiors—have knowledge on what’s going on in your life. If something is standing in the way of your productivity, speak up. There is nothing noble about suffering in silence because people mostly want to help. Transparency is the quickest and most effective way to help others help you.

People now have a more concrete grasp on what historically marginalized people go through every single day.

Sustaining Empathy in a Remote World
Transparency, understanding, and inclusivity are foundational empathy principles. In a more traditional time, they are challenging to teach. It is even more difficult to get individuals, teams, and companies to engage in them consistently. But for possibly the first time in modern history, the majority of people have a better understanding of what it is to go without something: physical contact with friends or families, nights out at restaurants and bars, the family vacation, or the cozy nights in with our nearest and dearest.

Most importantly, people are experiencing the feeling of isolation and of not belonging anywhere. And they now have a more concrete grasp on what historically marginalized people go through every single day. Now is the time to build on these feelings of camaraderie.

Firms can capitalize on these feelings by allaying staff concerns and tackling issues head on. One effective step firm leadership can take is to host a virtual town hall or an all-hands event where they relay the firm’s message clearly. Reinforce these narratives by encouraging managers to have one-on-one conversations with their staff during which any and every question can be addressed. Be sure the chosen narrative is in writing somewhere that everyone can see. Sustaining empathy during this time requires transparency.

Empathy’s value in corporate settings has never been higher. It also has never been easier to tap into the mindset necessary to have empathy for those around you. Utilize these newly acquired tools in your toolkit to both establish and accelerate the principles necessary for an empathetic culture in a still isolated world.